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Nothing Breaks Down Like a Deere

The iconic tractor manufacturer makes simple repairs expensive and time-consuming for farmers.

Master service tech/master mechanic for MV Equipment in Sterling Colorado, Cody Craven, right, works with service tech., Nick Anderson, left, working a repair a SCV stack on a John Deere 8320 tractor Tuesday afternoon, February 28th, 2012. Andy Cross, The Denver Post (Photo By Andy Cross/The Denver Post via Getty Images)

It is time for John Deere to return to the values that build it! 

My grandfather, Theo Brown, was a legendary John Deere engineer. Deere first noticed my grandfather because of his patents on manure spreaders—but what John Deere is spreading these days really stinks.

Today’s farm equipment comes chock-full of computer components. If any of those components fail, you need proprietary software tools to diagnose the problem, install a new part, and clear the error codes to restore the equipment. Unfortunately, farmers can’t get the computer or software tools they need, and are forced to go to the dealer for service.

When the dealership is the only one allowed to have these tools, it creates a monopoly on many repairs. Because farmers have no other choices, the dealer can (and often does) charge incredibly steep rates, and farmers need to wait, sometimes days, for service to be completed. Time is money in any business, and being without equipment at a critical time in the season can cost a farmer tens of thousands of dollars in lost yield.

The John Deere that my grandfather worked for wouldn’t design machines that could only be taken to the dealer for pricey repairs. Theo spent most of his career as a fiercely loyal John Deere employee and 30 years as a member of Deere’s board. He loved inventing new technology that made farmers’ lives easier and safer. He loved John Deere for its commitment to those values.

From Theo’s diaries, you can see how he traveled the country, visiting his inventions in the field in order to improve upon them. He made things work smoother, and adapted them to help farmers working with different soils and climates. His legacy includes 158 patents—31 of which are on the manure spreader.

My grandfather was also a man of his word. But farmers are having a hard time taking John Deere at its word these days. Three years ago, the big farm equipment industry trade groups in which Deere and their dealers figure prominently—the Association of Equipment Manufacturers and Equipment Dealers Association—signed a “Statement of Principles.” That voluntary agreement promised that they would address farmers’ concerns about restrictions on repair, and says that we could get full access to new software tools that would allow us to fix most problems by January 2021.

Then, over the last few months, dealers and manufacturers put on presentations for local farm groups to tout these new tools—for example, a software tool called John Deere Customer Service Advisor, which allows you to do some, but not all, repairs.

But despite the “Statement of Principles,” farmers often can’t buy these repair tools, even when they request them by name from a dealer. Clearly, a voluntary agreement is not enough. We need the support of our legislators and the force of law to get access to what we need to fix our equipment.

That’s why I testified last week in front of the Nebraska legislature in favor of Right to Repair legislation. The reforms included in the bill will give farmers access to what they need, including the complete software tools, to repair their equipment.

If my grandfather saw how the company he loved was treating farmers, I have no doubt he’d take a seat right beside me in that hearing room, and speak up for the Right to Repair. The John Deere he revered was dedicated to the customer. 

We should give every consumer and every small business access to the parts, tools, and service information they need to repair products, so we can keep things in use and reduce waste. Thrift and efficiency were the values my grandfather and the John Deere of his generation embraced. It’s time John Deere returned to those core values. And this is important enough that if the company won’t choose to do the right thing, we need the force of law to make it happen. 

Willie Cade, Theo Brown’s proud grandson, is a retired computer refurbisher, and a member of Repair.org and the Nebraska Farm Bureau.

This article was supported by the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation. The contents of this publication are solely the responsibility of the authors.

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